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Catching Karadzic

Thus spoke the youthful Radovan Karadžic, the poet and psychiatrist who, as the leader of the Bosnian Serbs in the early 1990s, became the chief architect of their "ethnic cleansing" policy. His extreme version of Serbian nationalism justified the mass expulsion of civilian populations and the murder of over 100,000 people. Although indicted for genocide and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague in 1995, Karadžic was arrested in Belgrade and sent to The Hague after 12 years living as a New Age guru lecturing on alternative medicine and writing for the magazine Healthy Life.

Karadžic's capture closes a chapter in the Balkan tragedy of the '90s. It is of major symbolic and political significance for the chances of overcoming the legacies of war in Bosnia. And while it reveals the effectiveness of international leverage on Serbian politics, it leaves a number of open questions about the future prospects of the "Europeanization" of the Balkans.


It was Karadžic who, in October 1991, threatened the Bosnian Muslims with "extermination" if they declared independence from the rump Yugoslavia dominated by Slobodan Miloševic. Thus, Karadžic's capture is, first of all, of major significance to the victims and their families. With over a hundred thousand dead in Bosnia and nearly half of the population displaced, the country could not embark on a genuine healing process so long as the perpetrators were not brought to justice.

The military intervention and the Dayton Agreement of November 1995 stopped the war and produced a sort of stalemate: a truce established through the separation of the three communities (Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats) while the country remained under international protectorate. To move from truce towards political cooperation and a more integrated polity requires a minimum of trust. The confrontation between the war crimes and the individual responsibilities for the genocide are a vital step in that direction. It will allow Bosnians to overcome the logic of collective guilt and an all-pervasive discourse of victimization; force the Serbs to confront the criminal side of nationalist extremism; and encouarge the international community to reflect upon the responsibilities that come with a mandate to protect civilians in so-called "safe zones" (which, in actuality, provided little safety).

The capture of Karadžic is also a poignant illustration of larger shifts within Serbian politics. The Democratic Party's victory in elections earlier this spring allowed it to seize control of the government by allying with the remnants of Miloševic's Socialist Party (SPS), creating a major realignment in the Serbian political system. The SPS is so eager to reinvent itself and fill the vacant place on the left wing of Serbian politics that it is prepared to be part of a coalition with a party whose political identity is built on the opposition to the Miloševic legacy. It is a historical irony that a government comprised of former Miloševic supporters facilitated the arrest and extradition to The Hague of one of the two most wanted war criminals in the Balkans.

The capture of Ratko Mladic, the other half of the "Srebrenica twins," also requires a major realignment of power--but one that may be too drastic for Serbia right now. Karadžic is a mad psychiatrist who strayed into Bosnian politics as Yugoslavia started breaking down, and became the ideologue and political promoter of ethnic cleansing. Mladic is the person who, so to speak, implemented Karadžic's plan with military might. But as a general in the Yugoslav Army, his prosecution would mean putting the entire military chain of command on the stand. This goes a long way toward explaining the protection that he has enjoyed from Serbian military security since the end of the war in 1995. The reform of the Serbian military and the dismantling of military intelligence is a difficult and slow process now being implemented under a NATO Partnership for Peace program. It will be a major test of Serbia's capacity to transform its military and security apparatus to the point at which they will be willing to relinquish Mladic to The Hague any time soon.


The arrest of Karadžic also illustrates the extent of European leverage in Serbia. There has been an ongoing debate among Europeans about the wisdom and effectiveness of making their relations with Serbia contingent on Serbian cooperation with the ICTY. The Dutch in particular (possibly related to a feeling of guilt over their complacency as UN forces on the ground during the Srebrenica massacre) were adamant that the arrests of Karadžic and Mladic must remain the condition for further rapprochement with the EU. Others worried about overburdening "pro-European" Serbians, especially in the context of settling the Kosovo issue. The EU eventually decided to make its Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia (as well as a commitment to loosening the visa regime) conditional on proof of cooperation with international justice. The rapprochement with Europe helped the Democratic Party win the elections. And the arrest of Karadžic, so soon after the agreement was signed in May, is proof that this tactic has worked--illustrating Europe's strong influence in Serbia.

But the "Europeanization" of Serbian politics is far from complete. First, Serbia's recent rapprochement with Europe has come without long overdue reforms of the country's legal institutions and security services. Additionally, the EU, confronted with a blocked ratification of the Lisbon treaty, is itself is oftwo minds about pursuing enlargement. The Serbian government, hesitant to challenge the nationalist legacies of the Miloševic era too openly, needs at least the prospect of EU ascension to motivate it to reform. The Serbians will be carefully watching the outcome of Croatia's current efforts to join the EU.

And while Serbia has made an important step in Europe's direction with the arrest of Karadžic, it remains intransigent on the issue of Europe's role in Kosovo's independence. "We shall not move an inch on the territorial issue," Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said in Belgrade after Karadžic's arrest. Just days before Karadžic's arrest, he was in Moscow to reiterate Serbia's unwillingness to budge on the issue. Belgrade is using the arrest of Karadžic quite skillfully by telling the Europeans that if they want the Serbians to obey international law by cooperating with the ICTY, then the Europeans need to do so as well in regard Kosovo.

Though the current Serbian government is the most pro-European that the EU can expect for the near future, it is quite fragile. So while Karadžic's arrest was a testament to EU power, the Europeans must be careful not to overplay their hand in a country that continues to be so volatile.

Jacques Rupnik is a professor of politics at Sciences Po, Paris.

By Jacques Rupnik